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Understanding occipital pressure sores in UK military casualties: a pilot study in healthy military personnel


Introduction The high prevalence of occipital ulcers in UK military casualties observed during the conflict in Afghanistan is a multifactorial phenomenon. However, the consensus is that ulceration is triggered by excessive pressure that is maintained for too long during the use of the general service military stretcher. Thresholds for capillary occlusion are accepted benchmarks to define excessive pressure, but similar thresholds for safe/excessive duration of pressure application do not exist. To address this gap in knowledge, we propose to use the time it takes for a healthy person to feel pain at the back of the head as an initial indication of safe exposure to pressure.

Methods Healthy military personnel (16 male/10 female) were asked to lie motionless on a typical general service stretcher until they felt pain. Time-to-pain and the location of pain were recorded. To support the interpretation of results, baseline sensitivity to pain and pressure distribution at the back of the head were also measured. Independent samples t-test was used to assess differences between genders.

Results Twenty participants felt pressure-induced soft-tissue pain at the back of the head. The remaining six participants terminated the test due to musculoskeletal pain caused by poor ergonomic positioning. On average, pain at the occiput developed after 31 min (±14 min). Female participants were significantly more sensitive to pain (t(24)=3.038,p=0.006), but time-to-pain did not differ significantly between genders (p>0.05).

Conclusions When people lie motionless on a typical military stretcher, the back of the head is the first area of the body that becomes painful due to pressure. The fact that pain develops in ≈30 min can help healthcare providers decide how frequently to reposition their patients who are unable to do this on their own. More research is still needed to directly link time-to-pain with time-to-injury.

  • adult intensive & critical care
  • wound management
  • preventive medicine

Data availability statement

Data are available on reasonable request. The collected data will be made available in an anonymised form on reasonable request.

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